February Talk of the Town: Bahamian Cottages, Air-Quality Research, and More

Saving Old MacFarlane

The MacFarlane district properties.

Most people think the historic MacFarlane district is part of Coconut Grove. It is, in fact, part of Coral Gables, a neighborhood of Bahamian shot-gun cottages built in the 1920s to house the Bahamian workers who Gables founder George Merrick employed to construct his new city. Many of these homes have fallen into disrepair over the years, one reason why Fabio Ribeiro, a Brazilian fund manager who lives in the area, decided to see if he could save at least some of them.

“My girlfriend and I spotted them [four houses on one particular lot], and we were feeling pretty sad because they were being neglected,” says Ribeiro. “We found out who owned them [Greater St. Paul Church]. They had owned them for a long time but weren’t taking care of them. In the end, they agreed to sell them, since we were going to restore them.”

Ribeiro paid $800,000 for the houses, then reached out to Torre Construction, which is known for its restoration work, having recently refurbished the old La Palma Hotel. “The houses had been dilapidated and abandoned for quite a bit, but they are salvageable,” says CEO Venny Torre. Restoration should be finished by this summer, after which the four houses will be available for rent.

A Shift in the Culinary Landscape

February Talk of the Town
Chef Patel (right) and his partner Mohammed Alkassar

We have long regarded the Gables culinary outposts of local celebrity chef Niven Patel with reverence, impressed by his Caribbean/Pacific fusions at Mamey and the American farm-to-table freshness of Orno, not to mention his latest Italian creation, Erba. And we are not alone. Last year, The New York Times called Mamey one of the 50 best restaurants in the U.S., while Esquire magazine included Erba in its 2023 list of the 50 best new restaurants in the country.

It is sad, therefore, to learn that Chef Patel and his partner Mohamed Alkassar of the Alpareno Restaurant Group will no longer be operating either Mamey or Orno, both of which are located in the THesis Hotel on South Dixie Highway.

“As of January 14th, we will be separating from Orno and Mamey,” said Patel in an Instagram post, “two restaurants that we poured our heart and soul in since the day we started this journey five years ago. It’s heartbreaking for me and my partner to part ways with two teams we love so much.”

Brett Nolan, CEO of Nolan Reynolds International, which owns the THesis, said that the restaurants needed refreshing, and that the executive chefs will remain. Patel and Alkassar are looking for a new home for the Orno concept of farm-to-table produce (and meats) cooked on an open flame. “We’ll also be launching the Mamey menu elsewhere,” posted Patel, “so you can all continue to enjoy your Jerk Margaritas, Lemongrass Glazed Grouper, and our famous Grilled Cheese!” Patel and Alkassar will continue to operate Erba and their Indian restaurant Ghee.

A Final Piece of the Puzzle

February Talk of the Town
The George, named after city founder George Merrick

Being part of the City Beautiful movement of the early 20th century, the idea of a low-scale, planned community is part of the DNA of Coral Gables. For the last decade, it’s also been the vision of MG Developer CEO Alirio Torrealba, who set out to create his own mini planned community of townhouses just west of downtown Gables. His Biltmore Square, flanking Valencia Avenue and anchored by Balboa Plaza — where he installed the Midsummer Night’s Dream sculpture of a giant stone couch — began with Beatrice Row, followed by Althea Row and Biltmore Row.

Now, it will be completed with a similar set of elegant three-story townhouses called The George, named after city founder George Merrick — but with a nod to King George, thanks to a style that resembles the Georgian townhouses of Bath, England.

MG Developer announced last month the acquisition of a $10 million construction loan, with ground-breaking expected by fall.

It Is Balloon

February Talk of the Town
Testing local air quality at UM

When it comes to air quality, measuring what we breathe at ground level is only one way to measure what’s impacting our health and the weather. With that in mind, aerosol scientists at the University of Miami’s College of Engineering are taking their research to the sky, beginning with a series of experiments last month to measure particles over UM’s McArthur Engineering Building.

“Most air quality monitoring is conducted at the surface level, but vertical profiling at different altitudes can offer more perspectives regarding the health and climate impacts of the air pollutants,” says assistant professor Yang Wang.

To go beyond conventional ground-level assessments, a particulate matter sensor and an aerosol spectrometer were lifted by an Alta Systems 12-by-five-foot blimp to collect data at 200 feet. Because aerosols influence air quality, climate, weather patterns, and other atmospheric processes, the measurements could provide new insights into the quality of the air we breathe in the Gables — and its impact on climate change. From airborne illnesses to the Sahara Desert dust, the experiments will “offer a unique glimpse into aerosols in our own backyard,” says Pratim Biswas, dean of the College of Engineering and renowned aerosol researcher. Stay tuned here for the results as they are reported.

Former Mayor Honored by Spain

Former mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli honored by Spain.

Former Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli is now about as close as you can get to being a knight of Spain. On January 18, Valdes-Fauli was honored at the Spanish Consul’s residence with the Royal Order of Isabella the Catholic, a Spanish civil order of chivalry only granted to those who have given the country extraordinary services by promoting international relations and cooperation with other nations.

For Valdes-Fauli, one of these “extraordinary services” was founding the Spain-U.S. Chamber of Commerce back in 1980, where he also served as director and president. In 1985, he also received the Order of Civil Merit, which rewards both Spanish and foreign citizens for their work to benefit Spain.

Though Cuban himself, Valdes-Fauli has been involved with many other countries as well. He serves or has served as the honorary consul of the Republic of El Salvador, founder of the Venezuelan-American Association of the United States, and co-founder and director of the U.S.-Argentina Council, among others. His work with Cuba (he was director of the Cuban American National Council), the Caribbean, Italy, France, and Mexico is also notable.

Now in his eighties, the Harvard Law School graduate is still a member of both the Florida and the New York Bar. He served on the Coral Gables City Commission from 1985 to 1988 and then as mayor of the City Beautiful for two terms, from 1993 to 2001 and from 2017 to 2019.

Temple Judea Selected for After-School Program

February Talk of the Town
Kids Play With Stickers. Playing with stickers can help child on important developmental areas! Neat Pincer Grasp, Bilateral Hand Coordination, Visual Scanning,Spatial Awareness,Sensory Exploration.

Despite the proliferation of Jewish people in Coral Gables and South Florida at large, many communities, including the Gables, don’t offer Jewish after-school programs. Until now.

Temple Judea has recently been selected by Jewish Kids Group as one of eight U.S. Jewish organizations that will receive expert guidance on creating their own after-school programs. Opening for elementary-aged children in the Fall of this year, the program at Temple Judea will infuse Jewish content into after-care services to make it easy for busy families to prioritize Jewish education and cultural connections. It will run weekdays during the school year from 2 to 6 pm with flexible enrollment options and camp-style learning and fun, including homework help, playtime, art, music, sports, and healthy snacks.

Temple Judea and the other organizations selected to participate in the Jewish After School Accelerator will collaborate with each other to recruit, train, and retain staff; structure transportation plans; customize interactive curriculum; and market the program to families. They will also receive matching grants of up to $100,000 over three years to offset start-up costs. The goal is to “make it easy and affordable for synagogues across the country to establish” these programs, according to Rachel Dobbs Schwartz, JKG’s Chief Innovation Officer.

The Jewish Kids Group’s model for the program was founded in Atlanta. Last year, applications opened, and Temple Judea was recently announced one of the lucky winners. 

Stay up to date with the latest news in the Gables with our Talk of the Town and City Hall sections.